PARIS (AP) — They only went out to play a calm game of petanque and enjoy some late summer warmth by a Parisian canal. By the end of the evening, the three friends had neutralized a knife-wielding attacker who had stabbed seven people, with an unlikely weapon: the game's clanking — and hefty — metal balls.
Lobbing them in their dozens at the attacker and whacking him on the head with a wooden plank, they managed to bring the horror that befell the 19th district on Sunday night to an end. The attacker is now in custody and police are trying to piece together what happened and what the attacker's motivations for his bloody rampage were.
Without the bravery of the three friends, and the normally-slow-moving steel globes, it could have been a lot worse. The area, after all, was full of revelers from a popular cinema complex, tourists and families. Two British tourists were among those injured
Luckily for everyone there, petanque player Boudjema Hamani and his two friends were on hand and ready to wield their own weapons of choice.
Petanque, a typically Gallic pastime played by some 20 million French in which a ball is slowly rolled along the gravelly ground, is ubiquitous in Parisian courtyards in summer months. It's popular with the elderly, and does not have a reputation associated with danger, action or speed.
In a surprise response at 11 p.m., the friends — none of whom can be considered elderly — chased the attacker, who officials believe is Afghan, down the street and showered him with their normally-peaceful steel spheres that can weigh almost a kilogram. Some 30 were thrown at the attacker as he was trying to stab people with a 40-centimeter (15-inch) kitchen knife. At least one struck his head.
Hamani, who helped disarm and arrest the knifeman, initially thought it was a normal commotion, perhaps a brawl, nothing especially out of the ordinary.
"But some young girls and young boys ran toward us, telling us 'careful, careful, he has a knife,'" Hamani told The Associated Press.
It was when the knifeman arrived on the Bassin de la Villette canal that Hamani and his friends started throwing their uncommon projectiles and anything else they could find, at him, until he lost his balance and fellow petanque player Reda Smain hit him on the head with a wooden plank.
Smain then managed to wrest the knife away from the attacker, as his friends were able to "block him on the ground," until plainclothes police arrived.
Smain told French network BFMTV that he struck the attacker's left arm, which was holding the knife. "I jumped on the knife, took it from his hand," he said. "Then I fell with him and knocked him out."
The Parisian petanque players were lauded for their bravery as French authorities opened a murder investigation into the attack. On Twitter, French Interior Minister Gerard Collomb praised their "courage and reactivity."
Paris police said Monday four of the victims are in serious condition, including one in a life-threatening condition.
"Of course it's scary. We are human beings, we're not Superman so if we're stabbed we're going to die ... But we didn't have time to think about it," Hamani said, before reflecting.
"We had a weapon, like him."